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Energy Security and the Oil Curse: An Interview With Michael T. Klare

Michael T. Klare, author of “Resource Wars and Blood and Oil,” discusses energy security’s relation to world diplomacy and power politics.

"Energy security" has led to increased US military involvement around the world, says Michael T. Klare. (Image: Oil security via Shutterstock)

Michael T. Klare is a well-known academic and professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College. He is the author of Resource Wars and Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America’s Growing Petroleum Dependency, published by Metropolitan Books along with numerous other books and articles. Klare is also a contributor to The Nation and Current History and serves on the board of the Arms Control Association. He is based in Amherst, Massachusetts.

In this interview, Klare points to the current status of peak oil and energy security as it relates to world diplomacy and power politics.

Dan Falcone for Truthout: Thank you, Professor Klare, for allowing me to ask you a few questions about your work and American foreign policy. You recently gave a talk where you mentioned how the term “energy security” has evolved historically and geopolitically. How is the term especially pertinent in the present?

Michael Klare: Well, originally, the term “energy security” largely applied to the protection of US oil imports from the Middle East. Back when the Persian Gulf area was the main source of America’s imported oil and the delivery of that oil was threatened by hostile forces (first the Soviets, then the Iranians and Iraqis), the US adopted a policy of using military force to protect those deliveries. That is the essence of the “Carter Doctrine,” announced by President Carter in January 1980 and underlies US intervention in the first Persian Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm, 1990-91) and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

Production of oil in developing countries usually leads to the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of self-perpetuating, authoritarian elites – a phenomenon known as the “oil curse.”

In more recent years, however, the US has sought to diversify its overseas sources of oil, looking in particular at the Caspian Sea region and West Africa as alternatives to the Gulf. Hence, “energy security” has led to increased US military involvement in those areas of the world. And while the US is no longer as dependent on the Gulf area as it once was, it continues to seek dominance over the flow of Persian Gulf oil.

Today, “energy security” is taking on new meanings. As new drilling technologies allow the extraction of oil and natural gas from the deep oceans and the Arctic region, these areas, too, have acquired geopolitical significance. Furthermore, the United States is no longer the only major player in the game. China, now more dependent on imported oil than the US, has adopted its own approach to energy security by seeking closer ties with oil and gas producers in Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. Europe, which is heavily reliant on Russian natural gas, is attempting to diversify its energy supplies in the name of energy security.

Eventually, climate change will pose dangers of its own. Energy facilities – pipelines, refineries, nuclear plants, transmission lines, offshore drilling rigs, etc. – are highly vulnerable to intense storms, severe flooding and other climate change effects, so, as climate change gains momentum, “energy security” will increasingly mean developing resilience to these effects.

You also recently came out with a highly instructive and provocative piece that discusses China and Russia as they vie to become America’s principal adversary. Can you tell readers about the vulnerability of the United States policy with this scenario and how do you think this predicament influences our next national election?

Well, to be precise, I did not say that China and Russia are vying to become America’s principal adversary but that elites in Washington were vying with one another to anoint either China or Russia as enemy no. 1. This reflects a division in Washington over which of these countries poses the greater threat and how best to counter that threat.

Okay, thank you for clarifying that.

The Obama administration, I believe, views China as the greater long-term threat, as it alone possesses the economic and technological capacity to challenge the US on near-equal terms. However, many Republicans, including most of the major presidential contenders, argue that Russia is the greater threat, as it is actively attacking US interests in Europe.

I do not wish to comment on the relative merit of these contending assessments, as I think all of them are rather exaggerated, but I do think that the debate has serious consequences. If Hillary Clinton is elected president, I think we will see continuing friction in US-China relations, with dangerous consequences for stability in the Asia-Pacific region. If, on the other hand, a Republican is elected, I think we will see increased friction with Russia, leading to greater instability and crisis in Europe.

Can you discuss how the production, sale and control of oil has affected the developing world? How have institutions and economic theory exacerbated global conflict and the escalation of state violence? The planet is also being victimized in this process, correct?

Oh my; this is, of course, a large and complicated topic. In general, the production of oil in developing countries usually leads to the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of self-perpetuating, authoritarian elites – a phenomenon known as the “oil curse.” We see this in such countries as Angola, Kazakhstan, Russia and Nigeria. Because the rulers of these “petro-states” often pocket the income from oil exports, they have no incentive to allow free elections or the expression of dissent – leading to corruption and internal repression. With no legal means to challenge the system, political dissidents often see no option but revolution and violence.

Recipients of US police aid were found to be involved in the systemic torture, assassination and “disappearance” of political dissidents.

At the same time, the oil-importing states want a steady, uninterrupted supply of oil from these countries and so tend to favor the perpetuation of authoritarian petro-regimes. Thus, the US has long supported the Saudi royal family, providing it with military aid and protection as deemed necessary. By the same token, China has backed its oil suppliers, like the al-Bashir regime in Sudan.

The discovery of oil in developing countries often prompts talk of economic benefit and growth for the masses, but the record shows that a focus on oil production leads to economic stagnation, pervasive corruption, persistent inequality and an absence of growth.

I came across something you wrote in the late 1970s entitled, “Supplying Repression.” You raise the notion of the measures found in Congress’ Foreign Assistance Act 660. Could you provide some context to this bill and discuss the possibility of revisiting it or similar measures in light of our current geopolitical situation?

Back in the Cold War era, the US sought to assist not only the military of pro-Western regimes but also their police forces, claiming that a strong internal security apparatus was necessary to combat Communist-inspired subversion. This led to US support for notoriously repressive regimes, like those in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Uruguay. In many cases, the recipients of US police aid were found to be involved in the systemic torture, assassination and “disappearance” of political dissidents.

As the evidence of such collusion mounted, Congress voted in 1974 under Section 660 of the Foreign Assistance Act to ban US aid for foreign police forces. This led to the closing of the International Police Academy in Washington, DC, and US police assistance missions in many developing nations.

Over the years, however, concern over drug trafficking and terrorism has led Congress to gradually erode the restraints of Section 660, and US advisers and defense contractors now provide training to the police in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia and elsewhere. Such assistance is supposed to instill respect for human rights, but it is doubtful that such concerns predominate in the current political climate.

Aside from your work as a speaker, teacher, writer and researcher, are your contributions as an activist and member of advocacy groups and professional organizations. I was wondering if you ever encourage students and audiences to participate and take part in the many positive opportunities in the society.

Yes, an important aspect of my educational approach is to encourage students to undertake internships and careers with UN agencies, NGOs, development organizations and others engaged in positive social action on a global scale. I try to provide them with the skills they will need to perform a constructive role in such settings. And, in fact, many of my former students are now working with such agencies and organizations.

Thank You, Professor Klare.

You’re welcome.

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